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Aug 20, 2011

Frugal proves folly for Wenger

It took just a 20-minute cameo from super-sub Luis Suarez to show Arsenal's increasingly disillusioned fans and their under-fire manager exactly what sort of tangible result can be produced when a heavy investment is made.

After watching Suarez's telling contribution as a 71st-minute substitute in leading Liverpool to a 2-0 win, even the prudent Arsene Wenger must surely be willing to admit that, at £22.5 million, the Uruguayan represents the sort of 'value in the market' that he regularly claims is so elusive.

Suarez's absence from the starting line-up had drawn some confused glances around the press box and it could be argued that, had he played, Liverpool may have put the game to bed earlier. But Kenny Dalglish's plan to unleash him on the tired legs of an Arsenal team who had played midweek was executed to perfection. Suarez's pressure on young defender Ignasi Miquel forced the Reds' opener before his coolly slotted second confirmed his was the biggest impact of a Liverpool player at Arsenal since Titi Camara bagged a winning goal at Highbury 11 years ago.

That was the last time Wenger tasted defeat at home to Liverpool in the Premier League, but this loss was significantly more difficult to take, coming as it did at the end of one of the toughest weeks in his managerial career. Victory against Udinese was, it seems, only a temporary respite for the troubled Frenchman, who has defended himself and his team unreservedly, though perhaps undeservedly, over the past few weeks, but whose threadbare squad still leaves Gunners fans wondering why he has nowhere near the strength in depth at Liverpool's disposal.

Kenny Dalglish was able to call on the man named South America's best player at the Copa America last month and an experienced Portugal international from the bench to inject some life into his side. Wenger's 'game-changing' substitutes were a 20-year-old midfielder with just one first-team start under his belt and a striker who has all the self-belief of Muhammed Ali, but none of the conviction. Unsurprisingly, the impact came from Suarez and Raul Meireles, not from Henri Lansbury and Nicklas Bendtner.

In contrast to the lifeless displays of Roy Hodgson's reluctant charges this time last year, Dalglish's 2011 outfit provide a bounty of attacking verve. Certainly, the Scot's post-match assertion that this squad "is better than it was last season" was a classic managerial understatement, though it was quickly tempered by the claim that Liverpool's victory was "a fantastic advert for the Premier League" - an assessment that was fairly wide of the mark.

There were certainly moments to savour - including some acrobatic stops from both Wojciech Sczczesny and Pepe Reina - but on the whole it was a fairly disappointing encounter for those who had been praying for a repeat of the memorable 4-4 draw between the sides two years ago.

Searching for positives when it seems there are few is a skill that Wenger has mastered in recent years, and he paid tribute to the young players he had put his faith in at Emirates Stadium. At one stage, the average age of the Gunners XI was 22.5 and the likes of Carl Jenkinson, Emmanuel Frimpong and Miquel certainly performed admirably on what was a difficult, high-pressure occasion for them.

Unfortunately, though, two of those three teenagers were responsible for the game's key incidents. With Arsenal already struggling to assert themselves, Frimpong was given his marching orders for a deserved second booking. His first was idiotic, earned early on after he prevented Jordan Henderson from taking a throw-in, but he had seemed to make amends with a high-energy display until deciding to scythe down Lucas in full flight. Wenger was honest in his evaluation of the red card: "I think Frimpong is a victim of his inexperience and enthusiasm. He deserved a second yellow card, he should not have gone into that challenge."

Soon after the Gunners were reduced to ten men, it was Miquel making an unwanted contribution. Thrown on for a Premier League debut after Lauren Koscielny hobbled off with a back injury to further Arsenal's defensive injury woes , the 18-year-old Spaniard put in a composed performance but was left ruing his luck after hooking an attempted clearance straight into Aaron Ramsey under pressure from Suarez. The ball looped into the net and Liverpool finally had their deserved opener.

Arsene's youngsters played well, but they were not outstanding and the Gunners attack was bereft of a talisman of the ilk of Suarez, while the impressive Thomas Vermaelen is in desperate need of a top-class partner. While Cesc Fabregas polishes the new Supercopa trophy on his Catalonia mantelpiece and Samir Nasri goes house hunting in leafy Cheshire, Wenger will continue to be quizzed about his lack of spending.

Watching Wenger talk to journalists has become a depressing and rather dull experience; the same answers to the same questions leave one feeling wholly unsatisfied. A lack of 'value in the market' cannot be a legitimate reason forever, but Wenger continues to preach the same sermon.

"You can spend money and have a bad team," was the mantra repeated in the post-match press conference, though he did claim to recognise the fans' worries. "You want the supporters to be happy and when you don't win games you can understand why they are not ... [But] I can't just go out and buy a new centre-back every time one gets injured."

Arsenal's current state remains of grave concern but while pages and pages have and will be written, Liverpool boss Dalglish simply yet rather accurately surmised the club's travails: "Arsene's done an unbelievable job here, but they've had better times than they've had recently." You can say that again, Kenny.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Luis Suarez. Liverpool may have still dominated before he was introduced but Suarez terrorised Arsenal's back-line after coming on. Full of off-the-ball running, his all-action approach could not have been more different to the lumbering striker he replaced. Andy Carroll's performance did little to inspire and Liverpool seem to just flow better when Suarez is involved.

ARSENAL VERDICT: Appeared as though they were the away side for long stretches and could not even beat their opponents' possession stats, usually a given for the Gunners. When Nasri wasn't on song, neither were Arsenal and if the squad wasn't so thin on the ground, Andrei Arshavin would surely be one of the first out the door - another soulless showing from the Russian frustrated the Emirates spectators.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: New signings Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing were particularly impressive in offering the Reds a creativity in midfield that was rarely seen last season. Adam also showed his defensive abilities in winning a couple of tight tackles and he looks to have settled in quickly. The defence was solid but rarely troubled, really - with Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger comfortably coping on the few occasions they were tested.

NASRI'S FINAL FAREWELL?: There were plenty of boos for the wantaway midfielder when his name was announced prior to kick-off but the fans generally laid off him during the game. When asked about his potential transfer to Manchester City, Wenger said: "I don't know. I always say that I've tried to keep Samir Nasri. He loves the club, he wants to play for the club. At the moment I'm happy that he's here."

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